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An unexpected education: lessons from Chile

November 1, 2019

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

While studying abroad in Chile the past few months, my understanding of the United States and its past in Latin America has been challenged and nuanced by my peers, friends, host family and the social reality that surrounds me. Last week protests erupted first in Santiago and later across the country, originally as a reaction to a 30-peso hike in the capital’s metro fare. These protests soon evolved into a manifestation of general discontent against an economic system which has left the vast majority of the country’s wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of an impoverished many.

The origins of the economic system protested this week can be linked to American actions in the country in the 1970s and ’80s. In 1973, Chilean military forces overthrew the first democratically elected Marxist national leader in world history, Salvador Allende, with the help of financial support and coordination from the CIA. The result would be 17 years of an extremely harsh and repressive military dictatorship under the watch of Augusto Pinochet, in which context a group of American economists from the University of Chicago implemented a neoliberal, privatized, economic system, cutting state services and subsidies given to the majority of the population under Allende.

This same system has been heavily criticized since the nation’s return to democracy in the 1990s, yet only in the last week have Chileans across the country and across generations joined together demanding an end to such abuses. In response, the current government led by Sebastián Piñera sent soldiers to the streets, installed a state of emergency and ordered curfews across the country in an effort to quell the protests. In effect, Piñera rolled back time 30 years to the Pinochet dictatorship, declaring “war” on the country’s “delinquents,” just as Pinochet himself declared war against Marxism and leftist ideologies in his comments after the 1973 military coup.

So many Chileans have said these protests are not about 30 pesos, but about 30 years. It’s about continuing a democratic tradition, about never again living through the detentions, tortures, forced exiles, assassinations and general social divisions they faced under Pinochet. For me, these protests have opened my eyes to the potential effects of American actions abroad and their unimaginable consequences for so many.

For me, these protests represent the first time in my life that the consequences of these actions hit close to home. For me, these protests are about my host mother, who suffers seeing soldiers in the street having lived through the dictatorship herself and who takes such pride in Chile as a democratic nation. For me, these protests are about my host brother, who returns home visibly angry with the inequality and repression his country faces, frustrated by the lack of change and poor handling of the situation by the government. For me, these protests are about my host family’s cleaning lady, whose neighbors have had to take matters into their own hands to defend themselves from looting and vandalism, with no police in sight. For me these protests are about my newly made Chilean friends, who gather in the streets each day to have their voice heard, only to face tear gas in return.

All this to say that my experience abroad has been much more than simply witnessing a new culture and a new part of the world. It taught me that American actions abroad, even from decades ago in the Cold War, can have significant ramifications today. My experience has revealed the visions of the U.S. that exist in some circles of Latin America, evident each day when I walk to class passing by anti-American posters, or as I hear the comments of family members of Chilean friends who say they hate the U.S. and all it stands for. All this has taught me to think and to understand the complexities associated with the U.S. across the world. I challenge other students to look for study abroad locations and campuses where they will be pushed out of their comfort zone, where being American will be challenged and questioned, just as it has been for me.

Marcus Helble is a member of the Class of 2021.

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